With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many Afghans believed that, after 23 years of war, their country would be at peace again. Although recent increases in violence have dampened that spirit, there is nonetheless a small population of urban twenty-somethings who are resolutely —albeit not always successfully—working to build an Afghanistan where culture, art and entrepreneurship can flourish.
These young men and women have worked hard over six years, and it’s their spirit that has paved the way for new television stations, sports clubs, art galleries, music schools and countless businesses to open and thrive, mainly in such urban centers as Kabul and Herat. Indeed, those at the forefront say that, since 2004, there’s been a small cultural renaissance under way in Afghanistan. Here are five people who are making a difference.
By Fariba Nawa
Saudi Aramco World
1- Roya Sadat thrives on intensity. She wakes up at four a.m. to discuss her latest film ideas with friends, and she can enjoy a three-hour discussion on the internal contradictions of modernity. A self-trained filmmaker, Sadat, 26, does not crack a smile. She has serious brown eyes. A sense of humor is not one of her traits.
Her first movie, Ellipsis or, trans-lated literally from Persian, Three Dots (2003), was the subject of debate and discussion at film festivals around the world; inside Afghanistan it won her six of nine awards for filmmakers, including best director and best film. One of Afghanistan’s handful of women filmmakers, she makes films that shed light on women’s rights— a controversial subject.
Ellipsis is the story of a rural widow who, with her children, fights to survive in a region where the local warlord forces her to smuggle narcotics to Iran. “My goal was to show the voices of the forgotten people, those in the villages who tried to become urban but did not have the means. So they were forced to become armed commanders and thieves,” she says in a telephone interview. Sadat’s style is minimalist, and resembles the genre of independent Iranian films, some of which employ local amateurs as actors, as she does.
Ellipsis has been shown on television in Afghanistan, and Sadat says it was well received. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission bought the rights to the film, whose most controversial aspect is that some of the actors are Afghan women. In fact, it took Sadat more than a year to find women—all amateurs—to fill these parts. For shooting, Sadat took them and her film crew to the desert on the border of Iran and Afghanistan. In that remote region, local commanders threatened her. After six days of filming, Sadat and her crew hurried back to Herat, where she finished the film. Japanese investors and Siddiq Barmak, the creator of the award-winning 2003 movie Osama, helped fund the project.
Born and raised in Herat, Sadat had not traveled outside the country until a few years ago, when her first film was released. She endured the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen and the Taliban years, reading books at home to keep herself occupied. She recently received her bachelor’s degree in political science and law from Herat University, training which helped her carry out research for Three, Two, One, a documentary about illiterate Afghan women produced by her sister Ilka. She plans to show the documentary to the Afghan parliament in the hope of influencing pending legislation.
In the last few years, Sadat has traveled to Germany, France, Singapore, India and South Korea, where she studied at the Asian Film Academy and made a short film with other students called The Calling.
Her next film, she says, will also focus on women, but her biggest challenge has been funding. To raise money for her next feature, she has signed with Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s most-watched station, where she will direct a drama series called Home.
“I didn’t wait for things to be safer and better because people can appreciate and differentiate between simple and complex ideas, but they’re afraid,” she says. “I worry about the consequences, but I’m still willing to make the sacrifice.”
2- They arrive in burqas or chadors and, once inside, they change into workout sweats. Most of the women who come to Gold’s Gym in Herat do so with their family’s knowledge and support, but a few of the younger women bring their mothers to exercise with them, and a few say they are afraid to tell their parents, spouses or family elders what they’re up to.
But Elham Pirooz, a professional trainer and founder of the two-year-old Gold’s Gym (not affiliated with the US-based franchise), wants to see not just young women, but the entire female population of the city working out. So far, she has signed on 50 women—of all ages—as permanent members, for the equivalent of four dollars a month.
Although another woman previously operated a gym clandestinely in a private home, Pirooz’s gym was the first to open publicly in Herat in 2005. Afghanistan’s bodybuilding champion Khusrow Bashiri helped Pirooz, and the two brought in up-to-date hi-tech equipment from Dubai.
“In the beginning, women were very excited that they had this opportunity that they had only seen in movies. Some women came for physical therapy and others came to be fit. People are becoming more aware of their health now,” Pirooz says.
Now, two years later, some of those members have become trainers and are participating in bodybuilding and weight-lifting competitions with some of the 10 other gyms that have opened since. But Pirooz says Gold’s keeps its members because it still boasts the best equipment in town, and it hosts some of the competitions. Prizes are such things as sports outfits or household items.
Pirooz says she trains members with breathing and weight-lifting exercises as well as aerobics. There is no air-conditioning, but ceiling fans fight the heat in the summer.
Chatty and friendly, Pirooz is one of six children in a family of athletes. Her sister is a karate champion, and her uncle was a bodybuilder. Pirooz’s mother and father moved to Iran a week after their wedding 22 years ago, and the family returned to Herat from Tehran four years ago after the election of Hamed Karzai as president of Afghanistan. Last year, Pirooz married a man who, like her, is an Afghan raised in Iran. He supports her athletic and business efforts, she says, and wants her to pursue her bigger dream: studying law.
Life in Tehran was easier, she says, but in Afghanistan she can be part of rebuilding a country.
“In sports alone you can see how much Herat has grown, and so has the rest of the city. I’m glad to be here,” she says.
3- It was happening all the time, she says: Crossing a busy intersection in Kabul, men passed Rana Ahmadi, looked at her with a mixture of admiration and disapproval and, after she had passed, whispered mockingly, “Chai Arab! Chai Arab!” (“Arab Tea!”) No matter how many times it happened, Ahmadi could not get used to people’s negative reaction to her appearances in a dozen-odd Afghan television commercials—even though her dress on screen was always conservative.
She had wanted to be a film actor, but at 22, while attending university, she changed to making television commercials because it seemed less controversial. She became a familiar face in popular commercials for laundry detergent, mobile telephones—and tea. The tea advertisements had the most catchy speaking part.
Despite her desire to help change attitudes, she says she is not ready to do that at the expense of her security or her family name. Her bronze-skinned, pretty face has, she says, become too familiar.
Born to an Iranian mother and an Afghan father, she spent her first 17 years in Iran. Mixing the Kabul and Tehran dialects of Persian, she says she fantasized about returning to her father’s homeland while she was growing up, and that it was she who convinced her family of seven to move to Kabul—a decision she now regrets.
Ahmadi points to the 2005 murder of Shaima Rezayee, a 24-year-old “veejay” on a popular music program, as justification for her departure from show business.
“My actions are a freedom that women could follow. Until when are they going to sit and wait to be saved?” she says. “But right now society has won, because a girl’s family and security are more important.”
4- In the 1970’s, Kabul was called “the Paris of Central Asia.” Arsalan Amini, a 26-year-old buyer and manager of four stores at the swanky Roshan City Tower mall, wants his capital to regain that title.
Sitting cross-legged in one of the stores he manages, Amini wears a pin-striped black suit with a deep blue shirt and a blue handkerchief tucked into the suit pocket. He arches his thick dark eyebrows and runs his fingers through his neatly combed hair.
Fashion in Kabul today, he explains, is largely “a mishmash” of Indian and western clothes “without any style.” He’s here to change that, he says.
For his stores, “I buy what I would look good in,” he says with confidence. He is fairly free to choose designs and styles as long as they conform to some of the customers’ expectations. Women, for example, like bright colors—hot pink and neon orange. Men are more subdued, but prefer light yellows and whites. Most Afghans, he explains, get fashion ideas from India’s Bollywood movies.
This does not sit well with Amini, who has chosen to dictate styles that mostly come from Turkey. Male mannequins in his stores sport silk ties, colorful collared shirts and dark suits with price tags ranging from $50 to hundreds of dollars. The female mannequins show short-sleeved or sleeveless Indian kurtas and wide, sheer matching pants with sequins and glitter. There are both conservative long-sleeved outfits and off-the-shoulder shirts, as well as western clothes—mostly evening gowns with straps or long dress suits for older women.
“I’m not interested in getting men and women to show more skin,” he says, “but to think about fashion with a little more edge.”
Encouraging a “fashion sensibility” and a sense of hip style remains a challenge in a country where advertising is not yet common. Amini wants to have more fashion shows, and he’s looking forward to ads on the country’s few television programs, even though persuading women to model modern clothes is still contentious.
Amini, who spent 10 years in Moscow and Tashkent and speaks six languages, says his customers are mostly Afghan expatriates visiting from their homes in the West, and some wealthy in-country Afghans, often merchants and politicians. Sales in the shops can range from zero to $800 a day. Ordinary Afghans find the Roshan City Tower mall overpriced, and they may come to browse—and then copy the design for their neighborhood tailors to sew.
In the present deteriorating political situation, however, Amini is concerned. The rise in violence this spring has kept sales down, and a fear of suicide bombers has kept customers away from the shiny mall, forcing business to a post-2001 low. But despite the dangers and uncertainties, Amini is staying, determined to teach people to dress smartly.
5- Two brothers and three friends, wielding a keyboard, percussion, conga drums and two guitars, are the band called Mawj (Wave), so named to symbolize the “new wave” of Afghan music. Their smooth, heavily instrumental electric pop is a sort of Afghan Depeche Mode, a fusion of electronics and fresh rhythms that departs from older styles, often based on Indian film scores, without rejecting its roots.
In 2005, Mawj released their first album with 10 songs, and produced music videos for two of them that immediately hit the top of the charts in the country. (Yes, there are pop charts in Afghanistan.) Now, with a second album out—24 songs and five music videos—they are one of the most popular bands in the country. The brains and the leading voices of the band are brothers Ajmal and Aimal Omaid. Ajmal is the clean-cut lead vocalist, and Aimal, 26, is spokesman, percussionist, drummer and overall fusion genius.
Ironically, the group’s biggest hit came before they formed as a formal band, when they wrote and composed a 2005 song called “Your Heart and Your Soul.” Television and radio programs in Kabul played it on the hour. Aimal says that after the years of the Taliban, during which music was banned, there is a “musical renaissance” sweeping the country. Performers are returning from exile and new artists—like Mawj—are working hard to come up with new sounds.
“There is so much pressure to be original now. You can’t just recycle songs from bygone artists anymore,” Aimal says.
By profession Aimal is a graphic designer, and he uses his computer skills to research music mixing on the Internet. He has built a state-of-the-art home studio, where he spends much of his time blending what the band plays in their rehearsals, at weddings and in concerts. Although they began singing their songs in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, they also want to reach listeners of other ethnicities, so they have recently incorporated Uzbek and Pashto into their lyrics and filmed two of their music videos in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Aimal says he has been on stage since he was 11, when he sang patriotic songs at his French-speaking school in Kabul. When the family moved to Pakistan in 1997, the brothers took solace in practicing music. A few friends who played instruments gathered, and before they knew it, they had a band. They all moved back to Afghanistan in 2001, and they have stayed together.
“We want to serve the new generation, who value music, but we also want to produce fast songs they can dance to,” Aimal says. “We have made it this far because of the encouragement of this new generation.”